India’s navy said today divers had found the bodies of three sailors who were on board a submarine badly damaged by a fire and explosions and that it was unlikely any of 15 other missing crew members would be found alive.
Eighteen sailors were missing after weapons stored in the forward section of the Russian-built INS Sindhurakshak exploded on Tuesday night, causing a fire as it lay berthed in Mumbai. The incident marked the navy's worst losses in more than four decades.
“The state of these bodies and conditions within the submarine leads to firm conclusion that finding any surviving personnel within the submarine is unlikely,” the navy said in a statement.
“The damage and destruction within the submarine around the control room area indicates that the feasibility of locating bodies of personnel in the forward part of the submarine is also very remote as the explosion and very high temperatures, which melted steel within, would have incinerated the bodies too.”
The deafening blasts sent a huge fireball into the air, panicking sailors in the dockyard and on nearby vessels into jumping into the sea.
A video of the explosions filmed by bystanders revealed an enormous ball of red and yellow fire rising hundreds of feet into the air. Experts said the orange glow indicated that high explosive ordnance had, in all probability, been detonated.
Naval sources said the submarine, which was being readied for sea patrolling over the next few days, was armed with Russian torpedoes weighing 200kg and 300kg each, in addition to missiles with 450kg warheads.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh mourned the deaths aboard the submarine.
“Eighteen brave sailors are feared to have lost their lives,” he said in his nationwide address yesterday to mark the 66th anniversary of India’s independence from colonial rule in 1947. “We pay homage to these brave hearts we have lost.”
The navy said its divers had managed to pry open one of the hatches but their movement was hampered by restricted spaces and displacement of almost all the equipments from their original location.
“The heat of the explosion has melted parts of the internal hull deforming the submarine hatches and preventing access to compartments,” an official statement said.
Heavy pumps, it added, were draining sea water from inside the sub, three-quarters of which was submerged.
The navy, which has ordered an inquiry, is also expected to imminently begin salvage operations and complete its investigation within four weeks.
The 16-year-old submarine, aboard which a fire had earlier broken out in 2010 killing one sailor and injuring another, had returned from Russia in January following a 36-month retrofit which, ironically, included upgrading its safety systems.
Zvyozdochka, the Russian naval company which worked on the submarine, said the blasts were unrelated to its repair work. "According to the members of our warranty group, the vessel was functioning properly and had no technical faults at the time of the incident," an unnamed company official told the Interfax news service.